Exclusive: Interview with Oprema boss Gareth Williams

April 24, 2023

Gareth Williams, Managing Director of success story and UK distribution giants Oprema talks to SJUK about his life and the best (and worst) of times

They say that all good things come in threes and for Gareth Williams, there is a triangle that is the most important component in his thriving business.

This one is simple: customers, partners and ‘our’ people.

It clearly works. A few years back, Oprema was turning over £2.5m – today, it is a whisker away from £50m. (The business was surely one of the few to make money during the pandemic by dint of a swift “pivot”).

Son of a tax inspector, Williams, 41, is a laser-focused, early-riser from working class roots who nearly became an accountant.

That was until his first boss saw something in him that suggested he would be good salesman. It turned out to be a good hunch.

Now Oprema stands on the threshold of massive expansion, not least a major logistics hub built from scratch. Just so long as it can be constructed on a site a few miles from its current one in Cardiff, so that his 78 cherished staff will not suffer needless inconvenience.

What is the secret to success at Oprema?

I always talk about the triangle – customers, partners  and our people. They are three driving factors in whether or not the business is going to be successful. And it’s dealing with those three factors and staying close to them. I’m not one of those MDs to sit in my ivory tower…it’s important to be visible and to be approachable and for people to understand that I am just a normal human being. We all make mistakes, but the important thing is to take responsibility, keep learning, to keep improving; try to be a better version of yourself than you were yesterday.

The culture of Oprema has been one of the cornerstones of the business’s success. Everyone collaborates and looks out for one another. There is generally a happy feel around the business – we have a community type vibe around the business.

One of the things we pride ourselves in was how we’re ahead of the curve in engaging with social media as way of using it as a route to the market or in business communication.

How was 2022?

It was a very successful year for us. We grew by 25% and won some excellent projects. Our turnover in 2021 was £35m and in 2022 we reached £49m. It’s huge growth but our expectations are not to grow at that level year in, year out. There were some external factors that contributed to that – Oprema was bought by EET Group in 2020 and we took on some of their customers and staff in June 2020. So, some of that has been organic growth and some of it has been acquisitive growth combined in 2022.

We will continue to grow. We have a three-year plan to grow to a turnover of £100m and we are in the market to acquire businesses, as well.

What about growth in the medium to longer term?

There’s lots of exciting things happening in the background of the business at present. There was one big initiative we undertook last year which contributed to the growth was that we have seen and that was we launched a new ERP system which tied into our web platform. The  new e-commerce site which was launched in March 2022,  is an industry-leading, fast and efficient platform. Customers have full visibility of stock and pricing of hundreds of thousands of products. They can view their statements, view their favourites and reorder at a touch of a button. So, it’s all about saving them time and money and being more efficient.

One of the initiatives we are working very hard on that the moment is that we have outgrown our current footprint of resource of warehousing and office space across three sites, which is a combined total of 35,000sqft. So we are looking at plans to acquire new premises of around 120,000sqft, and that would be an industry-leading logistics’ facility, with state of the art offices, demonstration, training facilities and  a gym. This will happen by 2025 and it is likely to be a new-build development because the kind of premises we would like are few and far between in this area. We wouldn’t want to move too far away from our roots or lose the exceptional staff we have. So, it’s a case of finding the right place within a few miles radius.

Tell us about your background?

I was born in 1981 in Caerphilly in South Wales – I just about made it into the 1980s! It was a very sort of humble, working-class background – a pretty normal upbringing, I guess. I went to a Welsh speaking state school, so I’m fluent Welsh, although I don’t get much practise these days! It had a happy upbringing – I was always into lots of sport – tennis, rugby and football

I was always interested in school and I was a fairly good student. Like anyone, I had my ups and downs along the way but overall, I did well. I passed my exams and went to Cardiff University to study economics as an undergrad and then later went on to do an executive MBA in my mid-20s when I was working for Norbain, who are one of my former employers.

But Norbain wasn’t my first job. After my degree, I saw my future as an accountant. I started with a company called Bewator and started a two-year programme where you would spend time in different departments but, ultimately, I wanted to do my senior accountancy exams. However, after a few months, I spent a bit of time in the sales department and the Managing Director, Bob Cotterell felt I had a career in sales. They were trying to grow the team at the time and he saw a future for me there. Bob said ‘Look, why don’t you try this? If it doesn’t work out you can try accounts.’

So, I joined the internal sales team and I got promoted to be into field sales as a business development manager looking after Bewator’s number one account, Norbain, who at the time were that largest distributor in the market. I was out on the road from the age of 22 or 23 with a company car and started earning pretty decent money. I didn’t really look back from there.

After a couple of years, I joined Norbain to run the southwest region for division known as NVC (Network Video Centre) I worked my way up the ladder into management positions with national and strategic accounts. Latterly, I was a divisional director.

Eight years ago, in 2015, I grasped the opportunity to buy shares in a business – Oprema. It wasn’t quite a start-up but had been going for about five years.

We were turning over about £2.5m with about 10 staff in a modest unit, about 2,000sqft, but I could see where we could potentially take the business. The security market is about £500m and I had spent time with one of the market leaders, which turned over £140m at its peak, and I felt I wanted to give it a shot. We were 4 just young guys trying to make a difference, trying to take on the big guys. In that time, the business has turned from a £2.5m business to a £50m business.

Who have been the principal influences in your career?

Bob Cotterell, MD at Bewator, Alun John the chief executive of Norbain and Chris Webster, the sales director at Norbain.

Alun had taken that business from a £5m business to a £140m business in a 10 or 15-year period. He sold the business twice – he was very entrepreneurial – a visionary, really. I learnt a lot from Alun.

Chris Webster I definitely learnt a lot from him. He had a great way with customers. He was well-spoken and always looked after everyone. He was great at entertaining clients and taught me how to be a great account manager.

Chris was really the master at customer relations and was always one to listen to the customer and improve the offering the business had for clients. That is something that I have really taken on board. We don’t know it all for sure. You’ve got to listen to the market and take on board that feedback, and tailor that to the offering to the market. It’s not a top-down strategy. We need to keep adapting evolving all the time.

Describe, if you can, your job day to day?

I am early riser – normally 4.30am or so. I get up, catch up on some emails on my phone usually by about 5am. After doing a bit of work, I do some exercise – either go for a run or go to the gym for an hour most days. It helps me de-stress and get in the right mindset for the day. Then I come into the office or I might be out with a client or a supplier at meetings. Depending on what is happening I am usually in the office by 9.00am.

With business these days it is a modern, flexible way of working because you are accessible wherever you are in the world. I was in China the other day and we were out for dinner and I had to go to a separate room to do a Teams call with a potentially big client, someone from our sales team and our finance director. I was eight hours ahead, but I was still available because of the technology that’s available to us now.

How did the pandemic affect you and the business?

It changed the business landscape for us to use technology more efficiently. I do far more Teams calls now than I ever did before but it allows the business to move at a faster pace. If you want to try and get a meeting with four or five different people, it could take a month or two to synchronise everyone’s diaries to get them into the same room. But on Teams you can get people together for a quick meeting so that you can resolve issues or bring new initiatives forward more quickly. That has benefited Oprema because we are a fast-moving, forward-thinking business.

The first two months of the pandemic were probably the most stressful of my working life by a long, long way because we didn’t know if we were going to have a business at the end of it. We didn’t know how long the lockdown would last.

The revenue numbers had taken a significant hit with a lot of our customers were furloughed, as they couldn’t operate on sites and couldn’t get access to things.

So, the months April and May were really difficult for us. We had to furlough half of our staff which is not a nice thing to do. So, we pivoted and managed to sell much of the temperature testing equipment which kept the lights on and kept us profitable. We managed to generate cash every month and come June or July we had everyone back in work that could be back in work…whereas lots of our competitors were perhaps holding on, not backing themselves as a business to accelerate out of the initial lockdown.

That enabled us to give a better level of service to our customers and showed suppliers we were a credible route to the market for their products and we gained a lot of market share. We grew from a £17m turnover in 2019 to £23m in 2020. We bucked the trend in the market as most other businesses stayed level or went backwards.

What challenges do you encounter in the sector?

We are security and fire distribution business selling around 200 brands. Our service offering provides a broad product choice in CCTV, access control, intrusion and fire. We sell business to business to installers and about 80% of our business is repeat business so it’s all about relationship building and offering a high-level service to our customers.

We also offer post-sale support, pre-sale design and commissioning – so we’re a true value-added distributor not just a box shifter. A tag line our founders Matt Epps and Tim Duggan developed is “We don’t just shift boxes, we think outside them.” We’ve been true to that since day one.

The CCTV market is one where the product is becoming more than just a camera as it can operate in so many other ways and give different data sets for clients. The camera can be used for far more these days. If in one of the major retailers you wanted to know, say, between the hours of nine and ten what’s the demographic of the people shopping in the supermarket, the camera could tell you that 80% of the footfall is female aged between 25 and 40 whereas they were previously used to capture thefts. This is valuable data for clients.

How would you sum up your own personal style in business?

Work hard, be humble, stay agile and be willing to listen to people because no one knows it all. You can’t be arrogant in your approach – you’ve got to listen.

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